WritingsThoughts, ideas, comments, diatribes, and rambles. A subjective take.
Troll Hunting: Ski Touring in Iceland, Part 1
Click here for Part II
It has finally started to turn cold here in the UpperLeft USA, and the Fall chill has everyone thinking about their favorite sport:
CYCLOCROSS. Forget that. Fall is a season for ski stoke and impatient waiting. To fuel your stoke I hereby present the first half of a two-parter on ski mountaineering in Iceland. It was an amazing opportunity to travel internationally to ski, in the summer while somehow also in medical school, and I’m excited to share it with you.
I am grateful as always to the support of Icebreaker, who’s gear I used for this entire trip without washing, and which looked at the end of it all as if it had never been used. It feels good to smell good.
Iceland is, by European standards, a younger country. Settled (and promptly deforested) around 870 CE by vikings, and further populated with Celtic women stolen from their homelands on raids, the island is furled in crude Nordic history and myths of trolls and elves. Today, it remains the least densely populated country in Europe; There are more sheep on the island than people, and there are half as many people in Iceland than in my home town of Portland, OR.
Iceland, as an island, is a remarkable place. Populated by tall and generally blond people with impeccable politeness, good cheer, and fluent english, it is friendly to its visitors. The island hides no geology either, with steam vents and volcanoes actively shaping a landscape pierced by few roads. The population circles the island’s perimeter, and beyond their sheep fences, Iceland is wild and unfettered.
In June, Taylor and I flew to Iceland to harvest the fruits of late spring storms. Iceland’s Northern fjords are just becoming known to skiers thanks to the rootsy air operation of Arctic Heliski, but much of the skiing remains untapped– harvested below the radar by a few locals and small crews of perennial internationals. With a dark, dark winter and surprisingly thin snowpack for an island, Spring and early Summer bode best for skiing longer hours and endless corn (with powder days throughout the Spring).
I landed in Reykjavik several hours before Taylor would arrive, and Siggi, who has joined me on adventures before, picked me up and had me surfing waves above my ability level within an hour. One of what he thinks are only 6-10 surfers on the island, Siggi took us to a beautiful break where we were, amazingly, alone. That was my first taste of Iceland’s real bounty– natural solitude.
After picking up Taylor at the airport later that afternoon we gathered supplies in Reykjavik, stocking up on feta. The supermarket checker tried to talk us out of buying sunscreen (“You know that you are in Iceland?”), but we were in for the best weather window of the summer, so we persisted. We borrowed a car and drove first West, then North to the fjords. For ten days we explored just a drop of the island’s lifetime bounty.
Within a half day’s drive of Reykjavik is the Snæfelsnes (say with me: snife-el-sness) peninsula, projecting West from the body of Iceland and terminating in a huge, domed volcano called Snæfelljökul (snife-els-yokul). This massive dome is visible on clear days from Reyjkavik over 120 km away, and was glowing in the sun as I looked out my airplane window on approach. Covered in glacier, it makes for a good reason to visit the peninsula, and for quick access to snow.
Though it had gleamed at me from my airplane window, we arrived at Snæfelljökul under overcast skies. With a cat tour operation running most days along its dog route, Snæfelljökul is not Iceland’s most pristine ski destination, but the cat track did offer us a navigational handrail through the low-lying cloud layer.
As we skinned optimistically through the clouds, we encountered, as one usually does in odd places, some enthusiastic German hikers. They complimented us on the forethought of skis and reassured us that the sun would return as we climbed above the marine layer. We continued.
Above the clouds, in a swirling mist, we found great corn-snow turns and views out past the marine layer into the distant and empty Atlantic ocean. My fears of not finding any good skiing were allayed. We skied downwards for almost fifteen minutes without cease, burning with happiness and muscular fatigue.
After our success on Snæfelljökul we drove towards the the North end of the island, opting to stay in Iceland’s second-largest city, Akureyri (pop. 17k). While it is a skiing town in winter, Akureyri had little for us in June. Still, it was within striking distance of Dalvík, the fishing village to the North which sits at the mouth of the Skíðadalur, an encouragingly named ‘ski valley’.
Dalvík is home to the only air operation around for good reason– though the peninsula on which it rests looks small on a map, it is in reality vast and almost universally skiable. With little information available on the local skiing, but with thumbs-up from a local to just go ski anything that we saw, we chose to ski a line directly above Dalviík for our first day. Parking along the main road outside of town, we suited up and started hiking.
With no trees, navigation by good sense and dead reckoning proved successful, and with a bit of walking, skinning, and booting, we quickly found ourselves high above the fjords on a warm and breezy day. The dream was coming true.
Here, we learned to ski under a never-setting sun. With no night during our visit, we initially struggled to find a good time to go skiing. If the sun never sets, does the snow ever refreeze? Is there any reason to get up early? Yes and yes. By the time we topped out around 2 pm (yes, lazy), the top 4″ of snow had softened appreciably. Still, it skied well, and we were hooked on the Icelandic see-it-and-ski-it program.
There is certainly plenty to see, and the landscape lends itself to skiing. With the exception of the odd rotten cliff band here and there, the mountains all seem to fall away at a perfect 30-40 degrees, turning and changing angles but never interrupting ski runs which can be several thousands of feet.
Thankfully, for us, the snowpack is remarkably stable. Our initial forays into wetter snow just made for surfy riding. East facing snow was soft by 9 am, and Western aspects by 2 pm, just a hair different from our Cascadian schedule back home. Dropping into the enormous slopes with complete freedom and line choice was intoxicating aplenty. Limited need for risk management made it all the more enjoyable.
We finished our days in Dalvík at the Kaffihûs Bakkabrædra, a café of extraordinary quality on Dalvík’s main drag. Here we enjoyed bottomless coffee and amazing house-made pastry while looking up across the hills at the day’s ski lines.
On our second day in the North, we decided to travel to outside Dalvík to get a feel for the region as a whole. Northwest of Dalvík, through a harrowing 1-lane, 2-way, 5 km tunnel, is the even smaller town of Olafsfjörðr. After surviving the constant high-speed yielding of traveling the tunnel (thankfully Icelanders are polite), you emerge into the bright light of yet another pristine, ski-rich valley.
While less charming than Dalvík in terms of cafés (are there any?), the skiing potential here is enormous and easily accessible by foot. Not that it is any less accessible elsewhere– for a friendly face willing to ask permission, seemingly any fence line in Northern Iceland is traversable by exploring skiers.
Outside Olafsfjörðr we found huge valleys carved by glaciers, with long descents to otherwise inaccessible oceans bays. We also found the worst snow of our trip, a casualty of the crack-of-noon devil-may-care start. But what skiing adventure is complete without some small wet slides and steep, runneled couloirs.
With a particularly late start, I forged a boot pack up to an inviting summit and the closest thing to a couloir that we’d seen that hadn’t been ruined by wet slide runnels. I sweated bullets in the hot sun, and worried that we were too late in the day to ski safely.
Still, Iceland’s benign nature persisted. I nervously felt my way into our line, pushing snow around and trying to make the slide happen. It did, but on an amusingly small scale. The top two inches would, with encouragement, break away into a wet and growing curtain that tugged at the skis a bit but once beyond me simply gathered into the slowest moving avalanche I’ve ever seen. I stood mid-slope waiting for it to clear out the line and then skied the bed-surface– a surprisingly good corn run.
After two days of skiing in the heat, we knew that it was time to change our plans and use my least-favorite tactic: waking early. For better or for worse, under a sun that never sets, it’s always equally difficult/easy to go to sleep and the sleep is of similarly poor quality regardless of the hour.
Coming soon: our return to Dalvik, perfect corn timing, and a few critical tips on traveling in Iceland. Stay tuned!
If you like Mountain Lessons, you can support the site and its content by kitting out at Backcountry, our summer site partner.